3 Squadron RAAF STORIES
An Amazing Modern-Day Australian Connection to
Mussolini's Rescue from Gran Sasso in September 1943.
- Some Unique Photos Uncovered.
Text by former 3 Squadron RAAF Commanding Officer, Murray Nash.
3 Squadron pilots Brian Eaton, Murray Nash (centre) and Murray Knox in 1943. [AWM MEA0967]
Murray Nash writes:
Coincidence. Fate. Call it what you may, but the weary old world just keeps on turning.
I was seated at a table for two, having just finished lunch with a friend at a cafe which is part of the Baxter Village where I live. We eat here every day for our mid-day meals. We were ready to depart, when a woman - whom I had never set eyes on before - stopped at our table and stood between us, saying, "Now, which of you was an airman in Italy during the war?"
Somewhat startled, I admitted that this would be me.
"Well," she said, as she made a space on the table and dumped a book and an armful of papers, "...My father was the man who rescued Mussolini from the Gran Sasso in Italy and delivered him to Hitler in 1944."
Before I could even absorb what she had said, I invited her to be seated between us and cleared the table for her papers and book.
She was attractive, middle-aged, and turned out to be a new part-time waitress at our cafe. Her name is Marias. I was able to tell her, "Yes..." as I recalled the episode which was much admired by the whole of the Desert Air Force which had recently landed in the 'heel' of Italy.
I also had read a book on this episode and had flown close at the 6000 ft level of the 10,000ft-high peak of the Gran Sasso mountain and observed where the whole episode took place.
Of course she was delighted to hear all this. Subsequently I found out that she lived nearby; and when her mother visited her from Germany some time later I spent a whole afternoon with them and listened to a hair-raising story of how, when Germany capitulated, her mother had been caught in Russian territory with three of her daughters (and her husband’s whereabouts unknown) with a large swamp between them and freedom. (At this stage, our waitress, the No.4 daughter, was not yet born.)
(Left:) Berlin 1944. Hauptmann Heinrich Gerlach, and wife Elizabeth, after he received the Ritterkreuz (around his neck)
for his part in the rescue of Mussolini from the Gran Sasso in Italy in September 1943.
(Right:) Gerlach with a glider at "Berlin Staaken" airfield.
Marias's father survived the war but died a few years ago. She gave me an excellent photo of her mother and father taken in Berlin in 1944 when he was given a Knights' Cross - direct from Hitler - for his part in the rescue.
The 6,000ft level is the only flat spot (at least, not sloping too steeply!) on the Gran Sasso. Now there is a huge five-storey luxury hotel on the sloping rock ledge where the Feisler Storch had to take off with the pilot and two weighty passengers (Skorzeny and Mussolini). The only access to the hotel is a vertical lift on the western side of the rock. There is not another flat shelf.
Neil Smith has prepared this illustrated history of...
MUSSOLINI’S RESCUE FROM GRAN SASSO
12 SEPTEMBER 1943
On 26 July 1943, a young German captain in the Friedenthal Special Formation of the Waffen SS, was called urgently to the Fuhrer's Headquarters. His aircraft landed on an airfield at the edge of a lake near Lotzen in East Prussia and from there he was hurried to a room where five other officers, whom he had never met before, were gathered.
He was introduced to the others and shortly afterwards, one said, "You will now meet the Fuhrer, gentlemen. He will have some questions for you. Please follow me".
The young captain’s name was Otto Skorzeny, a man already known throughout the German army for his capabilities of getting things done regardless of the difficulties.
Hitler asked several questions. Skorzeny, although the junior of the five, replied to Hitler's question, "Which of you knows Italy?" with the answer that he’d been there several times.
The others were dismissed. Within minutes, Skorzeny was entrusted with a remarkable mission: to rescue Mussolini who had been denounced the day before by the King of Italy and who had subsequently been held captive by his own countrymen.
Hitler claimed that he would not let "Italy's greatest son" down in his hour of need. His "old ally and dear friend" had to be rescued promptly. Skorzeny would be the man to carry out this rescue - and he was to develop his own plan to do it. Secrecy was vital.
Skorzeny's plan was to immediately fly to Rome in the guise of being aide-de-camp to a General. Also, fifty men from Skorzeny's unit would be flown from Berlin to the South of France and then on to Rome to join the 1st Parachute Division which was being sent to Italy. Skorzeny quickly prepared lists of equipment and weapons and hand-picked the officers who would go on the mission with him.
But exactly where was the Duce being hidden? That was the question that needed to be answered… and quickly.
There were rumours that Il Duce had had a stroke and was under guard in a sanatorium in the north. It was also claimed that he had been flown to Spain. For days Skorzeny was unable to determine the truth. In Berlin even astrologers were consulted. In Rome, agents of the German Security Service were told to do their utmost to find the Duce.
At last, Skorzeny received his first real clue; a suspicious Red Cross seaplane was seen landing on the Lago di Bracciano. Shortly afterwards, Skorzeny was handed an intercepted coded message which read, "Security measures around Gran Sasso completed." Before long, he had discovered that Mussolini was concealed there in the Albero-Rifugio Hotel.
Skorzeny now had to decide how to reach this high-altitude location that was perched on the side of a mountain. Should it be assaulted by a ground-attack, a landing by parachute, or a landing by glider? A ground-attack was ruled out because of the number of troops that would be needed. The idea of a parachute assault was also discarded because of the danger of dropping through thin air at such high altitudes and the difficulty of getting the parachutists to land on the plateau in a compact and manoeuvrable mass. A landing by glider, therefore, seemed the only workable solution.
This, however, would be dangerous because the only possible landing-ground seemed to be a small triangular field just behind the hotel. Indeed, the Chief-of-Staff of the Parachute Corps and his senior staff officer both thought that a landing on so small and unprepared a space would result in major losses and that the few troops who survived would probably not be adequate to complete the operation. Nevertheless, it was the only possible option.
Early in the afternoon on Sunday, 12 September 1943, Skorzeny's gliders took off from the Pratica di Mare airfield in perfect weather. At around 2 o'clock, Skorzeny, looking through a hole he had cut in the canvas skin of the lead glider, saw below him the roof of the hotel. The order was given to slip the tow-ropes and the gliders fell towards the earth in silence. Both the pilot and Skorzeny could see the triangular space behind the Albero-Rifugio, but as they dropped down they saw that it was not flat ground it appeared to be from reconnaissance photographs, but a very steep hillside. A landing there would be disastrous. Their only chance was to crash-land on the rough but flatter ground in front of the hotel. This they did but with some casualties. Skorzeny was one of the first to jump out and run towards the hotel.
One of the DFS-230C Military gliders (each with capacity for carrying eight troops) next to the hotel.
The ground seemed to be filled with Italian carabinieri. Most were running from their machine-gun posts at first sight of the German commandos, some dropping their rifles on the way. Skorzeny's men pushed their way into the hotel itself while Skorzeny himself beat a path through the carabinieri with the butt of his machine-gun and ran up the staircase. At the top he threw open a door of a room and facing him stood Mussolini. With him was another Italian officer. By now the other gliders had crash-landed on to the rock and more SS men were streaming across the rocks towards the hotel. Amazingly, not a shot had been fired.
Skorzeny called for the officer in command. An Italian colonel appeared and was invited to surrender. He did so by toasting Skorzeny with a glass of wine and saying quite solemnly: "To the victor."
Skorzeny then introduced himself to Mussolini and said, "Duce, the Fuhrer sent me! You’re free!"
Mussolini clasped Skorzeny to his breast and said, "I knew my friend Adolf wouldn’t desert me."
Otto Skorzeny (standing at centre with binoculars around his neck) outside the hotel with Mussolini (dark coat and hat).
Skorzeny's next problem was how to get Mussolini back to Berlin. From prior reconnaissance of the site, only a light-aircraft with short take-off and landing capabilities had a chance in this rugged and remote location, so it was decided to try to land a Fieseler-Storch ("Stork") spotter-plane on the plateau.
Hauptmann Heinrich Gerlach, who was General Student's highly skilful personal pilot, was called up by radio. Within a short time, Gerlach had managed to land the Storch on the uneven ground. By the time he’d alighted from the aircraft, he knew he had a big problem … how would he ever be able to take off again with a passenger onboard, from the side of a mountain?
Completely unaware of Gerlach's apprehension, Mussolini left the hotel wearing heavy ski-boots and, in the presence of his newly arrived German saviors, seemed to have instinctively reassumed the role of a dictator.
Mussolini and Gerlach's Storch
"The captain who was to pilot me came forward," Mussolini said later when describing his dramatic departure, "a very young man called Gerlach, an ace. Before getting into the machine I turned to wave to the group of my guards. They all seemed stunned. Many of them were sincerely disturbed. Some even had tears in their eyes."
Gerlach was too pre-occupied to worry about all this. He’d only managed to land on the short and roughly-prepared strip with the greatest of difficulties.
He bluntly said that he did not think be could possibly take off with a passenger. When Skorzeny said that he’d be coming as well, Gerlach was horrified. "Impossible!" he said - two passengers plus a pilot could be disastrous.
Skorzeny was insistent. He later wrote that he knew that if Mussolini had died, all that would be left for Skorzeny would be a forced-suicide bullet from his own pistol, because Hitler would never forgive him. Skorzeny rationalised that it would be better to share the dangers of the flight; if the aircraft went down, it was better that he should die too. - But on the other hand if they were successful, he would live to reap the rewards.
Preparing to roll over the edge of the plateau.
The orders were given and Gerlach brought the Storch's engine to full power while twelve hefty men held it back. At the right moment, Gerlach dropped his hand and they let go. It hurtled over the rock-strewn plateau as it gathered speed but the wheels failed to leave the ground. The edge of the plateau drew closer and closer. Suddenly they lifted from the ground but a moment later the Storch fell again and one of its wheels hit a rock, sending the aircraft toppling over the edge into the valley below.
Gerlach was trying everything to pull the Storch out of its dive as, from above, the troops ran to the edge of the plateau and leaned over to see the machine falling helplessly towards the bottom of the valley. Down and down it went. Suddenly and almost miraculously, the Storch corrected its doomed path - less than a hundred feet from the ground - and from that moment flew stably away to the south-west, towards the Avezzano Valley as though nothing untoward had happened.
They landed on the Pratica di Mare airfield, where Gerlach's passengers were transferred to a Heinkel and eventually flown to the Fuhrer's headquarters in East Prussia.
Gerlach was later awarded a Knight’s Cross ("Ritterkreuz") for his outstanding participation in the rescue.
In memory of Murray Nash. (Died 2009.) Click here for our Tribute page.
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